Early to mid December 2012 had been a very unseasonal time as far as weather was concerned with perhaps one of the mildest Christmases I can remember thanks to a warm SWly flow from the Atlantic where low pressure systems impacted UK and Ireland one after the other with their attendant warm and cold fronts producing large amounts of rainfall and flooding with strong gales and even hurricane force gusts over NW Ireland. This was all a far cry from all the excitement leading up Christmas during November and early December when certain elements of the press were having a field day about another severe Winter on the cards with blizzards, temps of - 20 C and a high probability of a white Christmas, well none of this happened and according to the Met Office not a single flake of snow was recorded on Christmas day in the UK so this all turned into quite an anti-climax for cold weather lovers, this is not to say that all sources were hopecasters, in fact, this was certainly not the case because on two occasions the models were going for a decent cold/snowy theme with a beast from the E promising more severe Winter weather but as the time frame got shorter the models changed and on both occasions the mild Atlantic pattern replaced the cold theme which put an end to any snow chances which was extremely disappointing indeed. Perhaps we got spoiled by the severe Winters of 2009 and 2010 and I'm now beginning to wonder if I will ever experience the likes of those again in my life time, however the optimist in me yearns for another experience like those years so I will hold out in the hope that nature will show us who is boss one more time, and after all, this is only early Winter and things can change rapidly. As I type this report in January 2013 the models are once again going for an Ely blast with another risk of snow so perhaps it will be third time lucky so we will just have to wait and see.
When each year nears its end I always like to get one last photo shoot in before the next year begins so during December I spent a lot of time watching the weather models for any interesting potential while making a rapid recovery from an awful long duration chest infection which had held me back for over two months, thankfully the worst of it had gone and with a period of 'generous' eating over the holidays and the nicest Christmas dinners I had ever consumed I was feeling myself again and in top form with an abundance of energy combined with an itchy shutter finger so I made a resolve to get at least one more photo shoot done before 2012 came to an end. After a lot of model watching an opportunity finally presented itself on December 29th when an unstable post-frontal airmass would propagate over the N and NW coasts with a chance of Wintry convective showers of hail, sleet, and snow on high ground with a chance of ocean generated single cell thunderstorms with even a chance of thundersnow so this immediately became my priority and from studying the model run into the future it looked to be my final storm chase of the year so Roisin and I decided to make a day of it.
The situation was such that during the morning and afternoon hours showers and thunderstorms would affect the coastal areas of SW and W Ireland and as the day advanced these cells where expected to pick up pace in a very strong Wly wind and move into NW and N coastal areas after dark with the period between 18.00 and 21.00 showing the best CAPE in conjunction with a passing trough over the Antrim coast so incase we missed anything we left early in the day and drove straight N wrapped in several layers of clothes, snacks, and a flask of brew to keep us warm. The T.V forecast warned of strong winds at the coast veering from SW to W so I accepted the fact that I made not be able to get exposures at night for this reason but would try anyway from a few strategic locations which offered some degree of shelter. My photography goals ranged from simple to complex, I would be happy with daytime convection however my heart wanted nighttime moonlit cells over the ocean with stars and if there was any lightning then that would be the icing on the cake. The drive to the coast was delightful with the sun shinning from within a crystal clear blue sky and the ocean itself was a fresh blue-green colour with a relaxed demeanor. We pulled over at this lay by above White Park Bay beach to check out the view while having a last look at the radar and sferics charts before we lost our internet connection.
Radar revealed distant thunderstorm cells to our N and NW, the above image shows a line of separate cells, at a first glance they might look like insignificant cumulus clouds however these were actually cells with large towers at least 100 miles away, moving L to R, and heading for the W islands near Scotland and these had recently been producing scattered c-g lightning over the ocean and thanks to the crisp clean sky we could see them easily from this vast distance, their bases were invisible due to a layer of haze along the horizon however with the trained eye one could sense their great size and solidity at this range with obvious shearing present indicating some degree of organisation. I was delighted to see these because if more cells moved into the same area after dark then we should be getting lightning so I couldn't wait for night fall. At this high vantage point it was bitterly cold with a keen icy wind however the view of the fresh ocean and that blue sky made us feel pure, this was much better than spending Christmas inside a warm stuffy house. This rambler walked into the lay by and sat down on the bank to take in the view which made for a nice photo opportunity.
One would be forgiven for thinking this was taken in Summer however it sure felt the opposite when standing outside the car as the wind chill cut through every layer of clothing. This beach is an area of outstanding natural beauty and is among the oldest beaches in the country with rocks dating back 60 million years and the view from here on a clear day really is outstanding and good for the soul, I'm sure this guy was enjoying every breath of clean air however he most likely didn't know that our eyes where focused on those distant cells in the hope of getting nasty weather in the hours to come.
The sky was still behaving itself with only a few hours of daylight left so we decided to go on a nice walk over the ancient shoreline between Ballintoy and White Park Bay beach which is one of my favourite areas of the coast and a place abundant with photo potential. This 10mm ultra wide image is an example of how beautiful this place is with amazing rock formations with the lovely blue sea splashing over the rocks, this place always puts a smile on our faces so we couldn't resist taking a few video clips for the memories. That distant outcrop of rocks on the horizon to the LHS is the Giant's Causeway and beyond that is W Ireland and Donegal, you can see the clouds in the sky beyond these with the anvils of several cells which had earlier been over the W Ocean producing lightning and where now sailing into view, we watched these cells get closer then collapse to the N then decided to head back to the car just as the sun was setting. I had already decided that I wanted to come back here after dark and get images of the stars and moonlit cells over these cool rocks, but first we needed to get something to eat.
We went back to bushmills and had nice sandwiches and a mug of very tasty coffee, I had my usual latte and as we ate and warmed up we could see decaying anvils with subtle mammatus between the buildings against a wonderful dark blue dusk sky. Full darkness fell rapidly and soon all the stars where out against a black canvas and Jupiter stole the show close to the Hyades and Pleiades, it was time to get out shooting again so we drove back to our same location and on the road we saw a bright blue flash of lightning to the N in the direction of Scotland. Then we where back on the coast on foot and with torches navigated our way through the dark, over fences, wet slopes, rocks and around streams until we arrived back on White Park Bay beach. My earlier hopes of a fun photo shoot were dashed the moment we rounded the corner to face NW because the wind was so strong, it was constantly blowing and at times the stronger gusts almost knocked over my new heavy duty metal tripod but I got stuck into the session anyway as best I could as I hadn't walked all the way out here to come back empty handed.
I was switching between the 10-22mm and 18-55mm with the wind blowing sand through the area and into the camera which was a nightmare while at the same time holding onto the swinging strap incase the camera blew over, I settled for the 10mm and got this shot of the stars over the rocks, I used my red head torch to illuminate the tide near the tripod legs for a little contrast. When the torch was on we could see sand and silt flying through the air in front of the beam which was probably one of the worst places to have a camera because of its corrosive properties and the high risk of getting sand and salt inside the camera body or even on the sensor. We stayed for a while with the constant blowing wind and the wet sand making our feet turn cold and damp and eventually we decided to turn back before we made ourselves sick with the exposure.
Half way back we rested on the majestic hills and then saw this coming in from the W. This was a line of convection producing sleet and hail stones off the W coast of Ireland, it came inland over Donegal and was approaching us. At last, after a long period of clear sky we now had some sky action and the moon was up too which made photography even better. We made our way on foot to the E along the shore stopping periodically to take exposures then moved on and repeated as the cells got closer. Here's that line lit by the moon with two towers/anvils visible on top taken just before the stars got swallowed up.
Now facing N as the cell crossed the ocean, this is 10mm ultra wide angle so the cell is taking up a huge area of sky, moving L to R, you can clearly see the anvil despite the motion blur during the exposure. That's me in the foreground with the red head torch to add a little foreground interest, Roisin took this exposure for me, it was only 14 sec's due to the bright moonlight.
Camera panned more to the L facing NW at the other section of the line. At this point the cells had begun to decay and began to gust out, we could feel a sustained blast of cold air blowing against us as the outflow hit trying to shake the camera once again. This scene looked surreal with the naked eye with the moonlit clouds approaching us in contrast to the sky directly below the clouds which was absolutely pitch black, it looked evil under there and no doubt copious amounts of hail stones where falling over the ocean, we were shocked we didn't get a bolt of lightning from this. The moonlit ocean looked utterly stunning to our keenly dark adapted eyes and if you look carefully you can see a very faint moonbow to the L of the large rock on the horizon which we didn't see visually at the time.
This was the storm's gust front spreading out over Ballintoy harbour and min's later the sky turned black and we were under rain and sleet for a very long time. After a considerable wait it was obvious we had seen the best the sky had to offer for now it was completely overcast and raining so we decided to head home. While in Maghera getting something to eat it began snowing heavily just before midnight and continued on and off during the night with the radar showing a traffic jam of showers passing over dumping lots of big wet snow flakes blowing randomly across the sky which looked like dancing fire flies under the amber street lights, so I had got my snow after all. The next morning we woke up early and from the front door I could see Slieve Gallion covered in a white blanket of snow so before the morning sun melted all trace of it Roisin and I drove to Glenshane Pass to get a few images of the remaining cover, there was a good dusting across the Sperrins but it was brutal outside with a bone chilling wind and finger numbing temps then after some exploring we went back to low ground to a much welcomed breakfast.
I thought that would be my last chase of the year until I checked the latest model runs the next day and saw a sudden development which looked even better than the last time. Cold unstable air was overspreading a warm sea and this clash of contrasts and temps were the basic ingredients for convection, combine this with decent moisture and a lifting mechanism and there would be a chance of more serious convection, it would be a case of low instability-moderate sheer with the jet stream nearby, plenty of moisture from the NW and 200 + CAPE over the NW Atlantic. The 18z model run for New Year's Eve showed an unstable ocean environment off the N and NW coast of Ireland all day long with the best CAPE over the N coast region around 21.00 and remaining until midnight. In a nutshell it looked like another night of post-frontal convective showers of hail, sleet, and snow yet again on high ground with a risk of ocean thunderstorms, both ESTOFEX and RTE later backed my own forecast and with the thought of moonlit cells to end the year Roisin and I decided to change our plans and get out once again and see what nature would show us.
This was a funny coincidence because during last New Year's Eve Roisin and I did the exact same thing, we ended up on a beach at night at the coast chasing lightning, indeed the charts showed c-gs over the ocean so we raced to the coast only to find a crystal clear sky, a chat with the local sea anglers informed us that we had missed the lightning by one hour for they had seen the entire sky flashing in front of them and didn't know what it was until I informed them. It was strange that a similar synoptic set up would happen on the next same night yet again however this time it was much different as the radar showed an abundance of showers and cells over coastal regions all day long and continuing into the night, we didn't want to leave too early when there was little CAPE so we waited until 19.30, packed the gear and more brews, then hit the road in high spirits and by 20.30 we had arrived at the coast beside Downhill beach, we drove onto the beach for a quick recce and when my eyes adjusted to the sky I got outside and set up the camera immediately on the blowing sand. This was the view looking due N upon arrival with the ultra wide 10mm lens showing a big storm cell miles away over the ocean which looked really impressive visually, the dark shape of Mussenden Temple can be seen to the R and that yellow region to the L of it is actually the rising near full moon visible through a break in the clouds with its glitter path below.
I needed to get closer to the cell and try and freeze its motion so there was less blurring from its forward movement, my wide angle relatively slow 10mm F/3.5 wouldn't do the trick. For situations like this you need a very fast lens, that way you can take a much shorter exposure and hence have less motion blur. The Canon 50mm F/1.8 was my fastest so I used this lens for these captures. This cell really looked beautiful and was without question the first decent looking night cell I have seen for some time, especially during Winter and most likely the best I have seen over the ocean since the thundersnow cells of 2010.
Thankfully the rising moon helped me get away with exposures in the 4-5 sec range which froze the motion pretty good. The storm was a considerable distance away over the ocean between N. Ireland and Scotland yet it looked really beefy with great depth at this range. The top was lit by the moon, the base was jet black, and the street lights behind me nicely lit up the sea and beach for a nice dramatic range of tones. The central tower/dome indicated a very strong updraught and the distinct shape of an anvil can also be seen which is the classic visual indicator of a Cumulonimbus Incus. It looked fantastic surrounded by stars and I was utterly astonished we were not getting any sparks from it, regardless of lightning it was still very photogenic and was exactly what I wanted.
These scenes alone pretty much made my night so anything else would just be icing on the cake. I kept shooting this cell with the 50mm constantly as it trekked across the ocean, I should have held on to all the images and put together a time lapse. There was a nice straight back edge to the cell (L) and some nice sheared turkey towers bringing up its flank. The stars above the anvil belong to Ursa Major and Leo Minor, had there been an aurora this would have been a fantastic scene.
That first cell seemed to be the convective starters flag because from that moment on I was like a kid in a candy store with non stop convection growing over the ocean and drifting into view on the NWly flow and they really seemed to pep up as that better CAPE moved into the area. I left the first cell which was now too far away and panned to the L and shot this beautiful hail shower which was just one growing cell in a long line stretching across the N to NW horizon and with the moon now proud in its higher elevation every cloud seemed to glow white against the stars.
What a great way to spend New Year's Eve, we never did fancy all that silly count down stuff and thought of being indoors just wasn't our way. I intended to end 2012 the same I intend to start 2013 and that's by doing what I love with who I love, that means being out in nature with the camera either storm chasing our aurora hunting and everything else in between. This night was magical, the wind was strong and bitter blowing into our faces as we walked along the beach however the rawness and purity felt great and within min's we felt like we had sand in our eyes, nose, and ears, however that was all part of the experience. Above us to the E was our old friend Jupiter near the Hyades and Pleiades and to the NE was the brilliant disk of the moon perched directly above Mussenden Temple with its bright glitter path cast upon the wet sand with us walking through its surreal glow while in the darkness beyond the sea rumbled and the tide played hide and seek with us as it tried to catch us unaware. Combine this with the starry sky and the moonlit convection and I couldn't have asked for more. This stunning cell rapidly pushed skyward and formed a hard anvil which looked amazing, the 50mm lens did a great job of bringing out the nice structures on the beach along with the foam on top of the waves which seemed to sparkle in the lunar glare.
The beach was completely empty except for us and this sea angler, I thought he would make a good photo opp or at least had some interesting foreground for the cell in the distance and for much of the time his fishing rod was still or he was still but when I got to the correct angle to get him in the same frame as this cell he decided to start walking along the shore and casting which made it very difficult to freeze his motions, remember this is night so that task was extremely tough, I used as short an exposure I could get away with on the 50mm F/1.8 and kept shooting until I got one where he was relatively steady so this one was the best. I'm rather fond of this image and love the atmospheric feel to it with the night time angler and massive storm anvil over the ocean behind him, certainly a world of contrasts at the coast. It was nice enough on the beach with the appropriate clothing however if that cell had passed over him it would be a nasty experience with a powerful squall of sleet and hail stones and bone freezing wind chill, it was nice to see them from a distance for a change.
Downhill Beach is miles long however after two miles we stopped when we saw a big shower coming in from the W making a beeline straight for us so we knew we were in for a proper soaking when it arrived, however this sparked a thought, bright moon less than 42 degrees high behind us and an approaching shower at the lunar opposition point which meant there was a very good chance of catching a rare moonbow. Long before the shower arrived a segment of bow formed and I shouted to Roisin to look towards the NW near the distant lights and sure enough she saw it too and as we watched it grew into a pale ghostly arc which stretched across the entire sky then intensified to the point were we could see subtle colours, Roisin was highly impressed, this was her first ever sighting of a moonbow and the experience was unforgettable but before we had time to enjoy it the clouds covered the moon and all natural light was shut off and it was gone just as sleety rain soaked us. I promised Roisin we could see another moonbow later and when it appeared I would try and get a decent image of her standing in the frame. This was actually the first time that I had captured the reflection of a primary moonbow, I can see that there is excellent photo potential here on a good flat wet beach so this is something I might just spend more time at in the future.
The shower passed and the sky cleared once again to reveal more beautiful convection, this was taken near the entrance to the beach after walking back again, lots of shower clouds brewing in the unstable air, thank goodness for moonlight for had this been a dark night I wouldn't have been able to pick up these distant clouds without much longer exposures which would have produced significant motion blur, astronomers often detest moonlight for good reason because it hampers deep sky observing and stops visual comet hunters in their searches and having considerable experience in both areas I can fully support this complaint, however from a photography point of view the moon is magical and should always be factored into any night weather shoot for the best results, unless of course you need a dark sky for the aurora.
This fishing boat was out the entire time and made for a fantastic sense of scale for these images, I'm sure the men onboard got battered by sleet, hail and squally winds a few times. Even though these cells are much further away than the boat you can really sense their vast size.
10mm wide capture of a new line of cells moving in from near Donegal, an obvious shower anvil is visible in the leading sector however my attention was drawn to the flanking region behind it where very solid looking towers were rapidly forming but we let them go for the meantime as we were getting cold and needed warming up so we went back to the car which was located in the car park off the beach.
We got two mugs filled with tea and just as I sat down to relax I looked out the window and got a shock, the tops of those distant towers could be seen above the tall hedge which blocked the beach from view so within the time it took us to walk to the car and pour the flask these updraughts must have surged in size, I left my tea behind with only a sip taken, grabbed the gear and made my way over for a shot before the moment was lost, there was no time to walk the normal way around to the entrance so I climbed an embankment, jumped over the fence, navigated across a railway track then jumped a second wire fence and landed on top of a high formation of sand dunes flanking the beach with lots of sharp grass blowing everywhere, I got the tripod level and began to shoot, this was at 18mm. These images don't do the scene justice at all, visually this was a stunning sight, the convection was huge in size despite the base being quite far away off shore with numerous embedded towers and young anvils all lit by the most spectacular and eerie light from the moon which was beyond words. I was shouting over the blowing sand to Roisin back in the car to look at the cell now but I don't think she heard me or could see me from the car park.
A few min's later it grew even larger and I was half expecting a flash of lightning and loud rumble of thunder but remarkably the cell stayed quiet. This is again 18mm wide angle yet it looks like a zoom shot, compare this to the first image which was taken at the same focal length and you can see the difference in size within a few min's. The coolest visual sight were the multiple curved fall streaks of hail stones glowing white in the moon as they fell from the walls of the mighty clouds and vanished onto the dark ocean below. I reckon that fishing boat may have got hit by this one.
These cells where sailing across the horizon from L to R like some vast ocean vessel made of water droplets and ice crystals, I switched over to the 10mm ultra wide angle for this one showing the entire line surrounded by stars.
I hurried back over the wire and railway track and informed Roisin of the developments, I had one more taste of my brew but it was cold so I forgot about it and got the car started, we then drove back through the entrance onto the flat beach to see the cell passing away to the NE, now it had changed and sported more of a typical anvil profile. It was very large with the naked eye filling all the windows of the car as we looked out, however this 10mm capture makes it look smaller than it really was.
Same scene now with the 18mm lens to get that little bit closer. To the rear of the cell you can see many more distant showers and cells away over the ocean and indeed the radar confirmed an abundance of cells all the way between here and Scotland with moderate strength echoes and more arriving at the NW coast.
The 50mm was back out again to get this portrait capture of the rear of the cell/anvil at F/2.0. A vertical capture at night is actually very rare for me as I usually prefer the horizontal aspect however this one was a better representation of what the view looked like with the naked eye.
The session was drawing to a close, we were both getting cold and tired however we decided to stay until we saw one more moonbow and we didn't have long to wait. I saw showers approaching from the W again coming down the beach in a line heading straight for us, the moon was still within the bow-friendly zone so I quickly set up the camera in front of the car with the 10mm lens attached, took a few test exposures, and waited. Then suddenly, as if a switch had been flicked, a moonbow began growing before our very eyes and within min's it was a complete bow with one base over land and the other over the sea.
I shouted to Roisin to stand in front of the frame which was difficult with the blowing sand and cold air and I managed to get several images with her and the moonbow at the same time, we could also see the red, blue, and yellow colours with the naked eye, this was Roisin's second moonbow experience and she loved it just as much as I did, I can't think of any better way to spend the last night of 2012 than under the stars and in the weather were their combined magic created these beautiful and fleeting phantom bows. We were both happy but shivering as we got back in the car but soon we were warm again and began the drive home and yet again just after midnight it briefly snowed over Maghera once more, and as Roisin said, ''the sky really was showing off this night for us''.
To celebrate the end of the year I put together this youtube slideshow featuring all the best sky action events I have experienced during 2012, the video is almost 10 min's in duration however it's worth watching with a nice warm brew with the lights out, make sure to turn your volume up loud for the best experience, can you recall which famous movie that soundtrack is from?. On the video are funnel clouds, convection, thunderstorms, rainbows, moonbows, NLCs, auroras, sunsets and much more. I hope you enjoyed the report and have a wonderful action packed new year of breathtaking sky action. Thanks very much for reading.